When Less Is More: Embracing the 80-20 Rule for Health

Perfection has been said to be the enemy of success. If you’ve ever felt stressed out trying to embrace the perfect healthy lifestyle, here is some wisdom of how doing less can be more. Frederic Patenaude, a prolific and popular blogger at Renegade Health, explores how the famous 80-20 Rule applies to health.  


My 80-20 Rule of Health

by Frederic Patenaude

Are you familiar with the 80-20 Rule? If you’ve read a lot of personal development books, you probably are. This principle is often used over and over again because it applies to so many situations.

Here’s a recap:

80-20 principle of peas

Image courtesy of Stick Figure Economics

The 80-20 rule was discovered by an Italian economist from the early 1900s named Vilfredo Pareto. Hence the principle is also known as the Pareto Principle. In 1906, Pareto discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He looked at his garden and noticed that 20% of the pea pods from his crop contained 80% of the peas.

These observations lead to what we know as the 80-20 Rule, or “the law of the vital few”.

If you’ve been in sales, you’ve probably heard the expression “80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients”. Or if you’re in business, you might know that 80% of complaints come from 20% of your customers. And people who manage a staff of salespeople know that about 80% of their sales come from 20% of their staff — the top sellers.

In software development, Microsoft realized that fixing the top 20% of bugs would avoid 80% of the most common errors and crashes.

More Examples

  • The richest 20% people on the planet control about 80% of the world’s income.
  • In health care, 20% of the patients consume 80% of the national resources.
  • 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of criminals — the worst offenders.
  • If you work for yourself, you know that 80% of your income comes from just 20% of your labour.

Essentially we see that in a very skewed and disproportionate way, most of our results (80% or more) derive from just 20% of our actions.

It doesn’t end there. In personal development, it can be observed that,

1. Most of what we do every day doesn’t lead to the most positive results. Only the smallest percentage of our actions actually matter in the end.

2. If you want results, focus on the 20% of things that truly matter; start neglecting the 80% of things that most people spend their time on.

Given the evidence that 20% of our effort leads to 80% of our results, we should identify what falls into each category. Is it a 20 or is it an 80?

Most people who are not getting the results they desire spend too much time on the 80%. They might spend 95% of their time on things that have much less impact on the result they are seeking. More successful people only spend 20% of their time on those same things. Successful people outsource the 80% and focus on the 20% themselves.

In Health and Fitness

The principle of 80-20 has guided me since I first learned it, years ago. And in some ways, I would say it defines my health philosophy. I see too many people spending too much time on things that don’t matter as much, obsessing over details while neglecting the bigger picture.

Although this is debatable, I would say that most of the concerns of health-conscious people fall under the category of “less significant” when it comes to achieving real results. In other words, they spend too much time on the 80% and not enough time getting the 20% right.

I see this ALL the time.

puzzled woman with question marksPeople ask me questions like,

  • What do you think is better, reverse osmosis or distilled water?
  • Should I invest in a Kangen water system?
  • I heard that papayas from Hawaii are GMOs. Should I worry?
  • What do you think of infrared saunas?

I’m not saying these questions aren’t valid, or that we shouldn’t care about things that can potentially harm our health. But in the grand scheme of it all, it just isn’t possible to control everything. And in the end, only a few things that you do for your health will truly matter, save you from degenerative diseases, and give you the body and mind that you desire.

Focus your energy on the things that matter the most and don’t worry so much about the rest.

How do you know if something is an 80 or a 20?

Generally, things that are in the “20″ category will have a noticeable and dramatic impact on your health in a relatively short time. Or they have been scientifically proven to increase health, prevent disease, and heighten longevity in most people.

Here’s my personal list of priorities in health and fitness. This list is entirely subjective, and you’re totally free to disagree. But in my opinion, this is what works. Also, once you’ve mastered the first column, you can start changing things in the second column. But not before.

The 20% of Health Actions That Lead to 80% of Results


  • Eat a diet that keeps your blood sugar stable.
  • Avoid refined foods and cooked oils.
  • Consume mostly plant-based foods, rich in fresh or frozen produce.
  • Ensure nutrient needs are met to avoid long-term deficiencies.
  • Drink enough water to stay hydrated.
  • Detox through intermittent fasting, periods of only raw food eating, simpler meals, etc.
  • Don’t smoke (this should go without saying).
  • Avoid excess: alcohol, caffeine, rich foods, unnecessary drugs, or stimulants, etc.


  • Do at least 20 minutes of exercise a day (or walk about 10,000 steps).
  • Weight train so you have above-average muscle mass for your age. Muscle keeps your metabolism high and prevents weight gain as you get older.


  • Get adequate sleep (for me that’s at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep).
  • Have meaningful relationships and an active social life.
  • Eliminate stress.
  • Avoid toxic chemicals that have been proven to cause cancer.
  • Express your creativity and talents doing something you love.

The Rest — Actions That Account for Just 20% of Your Results, at Most

  • Eating organic vs. conventionally grown produce
  • Drinking water other than clean tap water
  • Massages
  • Food combining
  • Antioxidant supplements
  • Exercise beyond one hour a day
  • Avoiding GMOs religiously
  • Avoiding wireless Internet and cell phone radiation
  • Using organic ingredients when making junk food recipes (organic sugar vs. regular sugar in a pie, for example)
  • Wearing organic clothing
  • Saunas
  • Hot and Cold Therapy
  • Paying attention to conspiracy theories
  • Relocating to another country with a more pleasant climate
  • Walking barefoot on the grass at dawn
  • Eating clay
  • Drinking wheatgrass juice, without changing the rest of your diet
  • Removing mercury fillings
  • Ear candling
  • Powdered vegetable mixtures
  • Supplemental enzymes
  • Colonics and enemas
  • Being 100% vegan (including the odd animal ingredient that sneak into a particular sauce)
  • Eating 100% raw
  • Worrying about “chem trails”
  • Avoiding fluorinated water
  • Worrying too much about EMF pollution

cairn lever

Final Thoughts

First, I want to clarify that this is not a scientific article, but a personal observation. I realize I’ve listed far too many things in the 20% category to be considered a small list. If I had to choose the top five most impactful actions, I would say the following:

  • Clean diet (whole foods)
  • Detox
  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Minimal stress

As for the remainder, this is my personal list, and everyone will have a different perspective. Of course I’m not saying that these actions can’t lead to ANY positive results. For example, exercising more than an hour a day won’t result in much better health, according to most studies, but it will lead to increased overall fitness! Fitness and health are sometimes two different topics. As far as longevity is concerned, we need about 20-45 minutes of fairly vigorous activity a day, plus some weight training thrown in the mix. But many people get results just by walking 10,000 steps a day, or about 5 miles.

I’m also not saying that eating organic food doesn’t have benefits. However, those benefits, as far as health is concerned, are more limited and theoretical than the actions listed in the 20%.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Removing mercury fillings can lead to toxic material being leaked out. That’s why I’ve personally chosen to keep the few mercury fillings I have; I don’t find any health problems related to this.

A lot of people worry excessively about certain things, like removing fluoride from water, if the water has been treated in their area. But when you look a little closer, there isn’t much solid science to support the claims of the anti-fluoride activists linking fluoride in water to a host of diseases, like cancer. I’m not saying I approve this practice, but that the benefits of avoiding all fluorinated water are limited, at best. Maybe you’ll want to find a purification method that removes fluoride from your water, but don’t have to worry about drinking a glass when you go somewhere.

It’s all a matter of perspective. I have found that overall, most people worry about little details without grasping the big picture.

I would even dare to say that it’s not worth it to pay attention to those smaller things until you’ve handled the “Big Five,” especially diet, sleep, and exercise. Stress will kill you faster than eating cooked food will, and no amount of massage or sauna therapy will fix the problems caused by excessive caloric intake or lack of exercise.

As we get older, we may want to shift our priorities. At this point in my life, at 37 years old, my focus is on exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. Perhaps in the future I will concentrate on cleaner eating with less emphasis on exercise, for example.

Question of the day: What do you think of the 80-20 Rule of Health and what are your personal 20s and 80s?


frederic patenaudeFrederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998. He is the author of several books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies.

He was named Best Health Blogger of the year in 2011 by Renegade Health. Frederic has experimented with many diets and specializes in raw food, vegetarian and vegan topics, as well as how to balance a healthy diet in the real world. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

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